Monday, February 22, 2010

Meme Alert

There's no escaping current "conventional wisdom" that America has become ungovernable:
President Obama -- "[I]f this pattern continues, you're going to see an inability on the part of America to deal with big problems in a very competitive world, and other countries are going to start running circles around us."

NY Times columnist Paul Krugman -- "Instead of fraying under the strain of imperial overstretch, we’re paralyzed by procedure."

Newsweek columnist Michael Cohen -- "Is America simply ungovernable? Are the impediments to governance so great . . . that no one can run the country effectively?"

NY Times columnist Tom Friedman -- "'Political instability' was a phrase normally reserved for countries like Russia or Iran or Honduras. But now, an American businessman here remarked to me, 'people ask me about 'political instability' in the U.S. We’ve become unpredictable to the world.'"

Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan -- "America's problems are too great for Americans to tackle."
Such critics commonly cite three causes of the alleged collapse:
  1. stupid Americans and spineless Democrats pandering to them (Time magazine's Joe Klein; NY Times columnist Charles Blow; Michael Cohen; Daily Kos Diarist Backbone Project)

  2. the Senate's filibuster (WaPo's Ezra Klein; Paul Krugman; Hartford Courant columnist Jim Shea), and/or

  3. minority party evildoers (Salon's Joan Walsh ("obscenely well-funded army of right-wing politicians"); Andrew Sullivan ("a nihilist strategy in order to regain power . . . [t]he Republicans are insane"); Michael Cohen ("obstructionist Republicans"); Paul Krugman ("one of the nation's major political parties has descended into nihilism"); Tom Friedman ("the Party of No"))

None of this is true. First, I'm pleased to belong to the party that trusts ordinary Americans, as opposed to the condescending and paternalistic left. Blaming the people amounts to a re-edited attack on electoral popular sovereignty, as Jay Cost says on Real Clear Politics:
Moderate Democrats might have defected because they were worried about their jobs -- but the point of popular elections is to link the personal interests of legislators with the interests of their constituents. It often fails to work -- but in a situation where "spineless Democrats" clearly voted with their districts, it seems to have been working pretty well.
In Friday's Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer agrees:
That's not a structural defect. That's a textbook demonstration of popular will expressing itself -- despite the special interests -- through the existing structures. In other words, the system worked.
Besides, was the electorate stupid when it chose Democrats to run the Executive and Legislative branches in 2008? Perhaps this disconnect explains why "ungovernable" advocate Tom Friedman favors China's despotic authoritarianism over America's constitutional democracy -- like most leftists, he prefers diktats by the elite, i.e., New York Times columnists.

Second, although I think the filibuster dubious for votes under the "treaty and appointments clause" (Art. II, Sec. 2, cl. 2), the Framers intended that Senate review of proposed legislation be thorough and deliberate. Moreover, Democrats historically have employed the tactic -- indeed, Vice President Biden decries the filibuster though Senator Biden defended it passionately. There's no inconsistency because -- I'm not making this up! -- progressives say "the filibuster is OK for Democrats but not for Republicans." Suggesting that the "ungovernable" meme really means "All your base are belong to us."

Third, faulting Republicans flows from equating "failure to adopt my ideas" with "ungovernable." Observe, for example, The New Republic's Jonathan Chait:
[T]he country faces some serious problems: a costly and cruel healthcare system, an energy system that contributes to damaging climate change, and an unsustainable deficit. I don't see how any of these problems can be solved or even significantly ameliorated under the present setup. That's my definition of ungovernable.
In other words, the left "has decided the nation is ungovernable because there is no popular support for the total upheaval of the American way of life." How can Republicans be blamed for this? As Mickey Kaus concludes:
[I]n this case there's a simpler explanation: Barack Obama's job was to sell a health care reform plan to American voters. He failed. He didn't fail because 55% of Americans can never be convinced of anything. It happens all the time. He just failed. He tried to sell expanding coverage as a deficit reducer. Voters didn't believe him and worried that they would pay the bill in some unadvertised way (through Medicare reductions or future tax increases, mainly). That's not constitutional paralysis or Web-enabled mob rule. It's just bad salesmanship.
Bad logic too, because -- as Jonah Goldberg observes -- the claim is no more than "After all, Obama's a super-genius and the Democrats had control of everything, so clearly the system is broken and the presidency is too weak institutionally (or some such)." On top of that, Obama claimed as recently as October that last year's "legislative session [was] one of the most productive in a generation." Besides Scott Brown, what's changed? As even Susan Estrich says, "What Went Wrong?" is that the people don't like Obama's bloated healthcare spending plan.

Finally, the flip-side is that reforms passed in the past, as Krauthammer recounts:
In the latter days of the Carter presidency, it became fashionable to say that the office had become unmanageable and was simply too big for one man. Some suggested a single, six-year presidential term. The president's own White House counsel suggested abolishing the separation of powers and going to a more parliamentary system of unitary executive control. America had become ungovernable.

Then came Ronald Reagan, and all that chatter disappeared.

The tyranny of entitlements? Reagan collaborated with Tip O'Neill, the legendary Democratic House speaker, to establish the Alan Greenspan commission that kept Social Security solvent for a quarter-century.

A corrupted system of taxation? Reagan worked with liberal Democrat Bill Bradley to craft a legislative miracle: tax reform that eliminated dozens of loopholes and slashed rates across the board -- and fueled two decades of economic growth.

Later, a highly skilled Democratic president, Bill Clinton, successfully tackled another supposedly intractable problem: the culture of intergenerational dependency. He collaborated with another House speaker, Newt Gingrich, to produce the single most successful social reform of our time, the abolition of welfare as an entitlement.

It turned out that the country's problems were not problems of structure but of leadership. Reagan and Clinton had it. Carter didn't. Under a president with extensive executive experience, good political skills and an ideological compass in tune with the public, the country was indeed governable.
The February 20th Economist concurs:
It is not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favours. If, instead of handing over health care to his party’s left wing, he had lived up to his promise to be a bipartisan president and courted conservatives by offering, say, reform of the tort system, he might have got health care through; by giving ground on nuclear power, he may now stand a chance of getting a climate bill. Once Mr Clinton learned the advantages of co-operating with the Republicans, the country was governed better.
Conclusion: The current meme is meaningless. As Jay Cost says, "America is not ungovernable. Her President has simply not been up to the job." But those demanding a deeper discourse should read American Thinker's Christopher Chantrill:
Our left-wing friends never seem to have thought that their narrative of injustice, which exposed the hypocrisies of the world bourgeoisie and global corporations, applies exactly to them and their progressive project.

When you look at the great government programs, you can believe the liberal narrative about helping people, or you can believe the liberal postmodernists and assume that it's all about power. Every regulation is a bid for power; every dollar of spending is a payoff to supporters. You can make a case that the Obama administration's program of stimuli, bailouts, tax "agnosticism," and crony capitalism is all about hope and change for the people. But in the modern age, stripped of superstition and Platonic "likely stories," we believe in the simple, elegant explanation. Nah, it's all about power. . .

So when liberal wring their hands because the U.S. seems to be ungovernable, we conservatives chuckle. That's not a bug, liberals; that's a feature.
(via Moonbattery, Byron York, reader Doug J.)


Marc said...

I'm reminded of the expression, "A poor craftsman blames his tools."

Except in this case, it's liberal tools that are doing the scapegoating.

OBloodyHell said...

America is ungovernable in the same sense as a black man is unelectable.

To paraphrase the words of another PotUS, "It all depends on what you mean by 'un'".

Geoffrey Britain said...

“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties:

1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.

2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests.

In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves.”
–Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824.

Liberals have indeed declared themselves... and, they trust the people, not even a bit.